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A tale of two superhero shows: How ‘The Boys,’ ‘Invincible’ subvert superhero stereotypes

prime video's invincible
Prime Video’s “Invincible.” “Invincible” and “The Boys” portray heroes differently than many other superhero series have. COURTESY OF AMAZON STUDIOS

Prime Video’s “Invincible” series premiered March 26 and features a star-studded voice acting cast, with Steven Yeun playing the titular character, also known as Mark Grayson.

From the get-go, you can tell this is not your typical superhero cartoon. First off, the show is rated TV-MA. It’s exciting to see society embrace superhero stories that are not just for kids and provide content for those who grew up watching Marvel and DC Universe movies. But what struck me about “Invincible” is how vincible — if you may — the characters are.

The cartoon is incredibly gory, which is not surprising given that the comic’s creator Robert Kirkman also created “The Walking Dead” comic book series. There is almost no plot armor: superheroes die and are regularly hospitalized. You also never know where a character’s allegiance lies.

Those you initially thought were the “good guys” quickly assume a more devious position, in limbo between superhero and supervillain. This adds to the show’s intrigue, especially when you have to wait for each episode to air every Thursday. You never know who to root for.

While characters in “The Boys” are invincible on the battlefield, what makes our superheroes incredibly vulnerable is their relationships with others. A line from Queen Maeve in the show stuck out to me: “Everyone always asks what’s our special weakness: gamma rays, iron daggers, some ridiculous, stupid thing. The truth is, our weakness is the same as anyone’s. It’s people, the people we care about.”

In “The Boys,” family members and lovers are constantly taken hostage. Even powerless humans can turn superheroes into putty through deceit and blackmailing.

Another superhero weakness present in the two shows is their image. Both “The Boys” and “Invincible” attempt to answer the question: What would superheroes be like in the age of social media?

In “Invincible,” superhero teams get their own Instagram pages and are rated for their likeability. Similarly, the superheroes of “The Boys” are also rated in terms of audience reaction, and we even see their marketing team creating new campaigns. And thus, superheroes are not one individual, but a team of people pulling the strings behind the scenes.

We can’t act like this idea is in any way new. While the comic books of “Invincible” and “The Boys” were released in 2003 and 2006 respectively, their shows were just picked up by Amazon in 2021 and 2019. Others may recall the big anime boom of 2015-2016, when we were introduced to similar depictions of modern superhero life in the shows “One-Punch Man” and “My Hero Academia.”

These series also imagined worlds where media portrayal affects how superheroes are paid and treated. In “One-Punch Man,” the main character named Saitama is an overpowered superhero who doesn’t get credit for his work because of his unassuming looks and non-flashy style of fighting.

In “My Hero Academia,” heroism is a career like all others, where those who want to become superheroes must go to school for it and search for shadowing and internship opportunities. Both of these shows are very well-received among international audiences, so we must give credit where credit is due. Is this a cultural shift in how we view superheroes that U.S. media is just now picking up on?

I began watching “The Boys” after catching up with the latest episode of “Invincible,” and I am already on season two. It has consumed my isolated pandemic life so much that I had to block my access to Amazon’s website. There is a dichotomy in this — I feel bad giving more money to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. At the same time, Prime Video is spotlighting comics that aren’t from the Marvel and DC Universe and making fun of tropes from those franchises.

Coincidentally, I got an ad for Marvel merchandise in my inbox while I was writing this article. After watching these shows, I feel red-pilled about the way the media milks the hell out of superhero characters. I will never look at a Captain America Funko Pop! the same way ever again.

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  1. Can’t wait to watch Invincible.

  2. Agree! We need more nuanced hero stories!